Edgar Degas

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Edgar Degas
Three Studies of a Dancer
ca. 1880
Black, pink, and white pastel on light brown paper.
18 13/16 x 25 inches (478 x 635 mm)
Thaw Collection.

One of Degas' principal concerns as a draftsman was analyzing the movements and gestures of the female body. The three studies on this sheet depict the teenage dancer Marie van Goethem and were produced in preparation for the scandalous, but now celebrated, sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; 1999.80.28). Modeled in colored beeswax, the sculpture was briefly exhibited at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in the spring of 1881, where the artist's inclusion of a fabric bodice, hair ribbon, and tulle skirt caused a sensation. The realism of the figure, combination of media, and contemporary subject proved revolutionary.
Degas made numerous studies of Van Goethem between 1878 and 1880. She was one of three Belgian sisters from a working class family who were at an early age apprenticed to the ballet. Her family lived just a few streets away from Degas's Montmartre studio where Van Goethem would pose for the artist. Degas's portrayal of Van Goethem, one of the many young, working class girls patronizingly referred to as ballet “rats” and who were subject to the attentions of male balletomanes, captures her plainly and with a certain compassion.
Degas produced around ten sheets of studies related to the sculpture, studying his model from all angles, with and without her practice skirt. In this sheet the repeated chalk strokes and smudging reveal that her foreshortened left foot posed a problem when seen from behind, as did the jutting elbows of her bent arms, interlocked behind her back. The addition of white pastel to describe the fabric of her dress also helped Degas create a sense of volume as her forearms sink into her skirt. A few strokes of pink pastel on her calf and feet likewise lend a roundness to her limbs, which are seen at an awkward angle. For this project, drawings such as the Morgan sheet served as a forum for resolving the challenges of Von Goethem's complex pose, and reveal Degas's need to understand and accurately depict the figure before sculpting her.


Signed in black pastel at upper right corner, "Degas".

Degas atelier (Lugt 586bis); Jacques Doucet (1853-1929), Paris; his sale, Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, 28 December 1917, lot 79, repr.; André Wormser (1851-1926), Paris; Walter Feilchenfeldt, Zurich; Eugene V. (1927-2018) and Clare E. (1924-2017) Thaw, New York.
Associated names: 

Doucet, Jacques, 1853-1929, former owner.
Wormser, André, former owner.
Feilchenfeldt, Walter, former owner.
Thaw, Eugene Victor, former owner.
Thaw, Clare, former owner.


The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY, "Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection", 2017. Exh. cat., no. 87, repr.
The Thaw Collection : Master Drawings and Oil Sketches : Acquisitions since 1994. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 2002, no. 45.

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